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The US just saw its lowest COVID-19 daily case count since October. But here’s why experts are still worried

The US on Monday reported more than 53,800 new COVID-19 infections: its lowest daily case count since October and a vastly different number from those plaguing the country just last month, when infections were topping 200,000 a day.

Statistics across the US are now reflecting more encouraging trends. California, one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic, reported its lowest daily case increase since early November.

That comes amid a steady decline not only in new infections but also in hospitalizations and deaths as well. The sharp drop in cases is due to a combination of the end of the post-holiday surge, increased preventive measures like masks and distancing and the tens of millions of previously infected people who now have a level of natural immunity.

Vaccines, too, are increasingly going into arms and limiting the virus’s ability to find new hosts. The US has administered nearly 53 million vaccine doses so far and is averaging about 1.6 million doses administered every day, a number that has been steadily increasing.

“It’s hard to know, but I do think that one possibility is you’re starting to see the first evidence of herd immunity,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Even as the data is heading in the right direction, tens of thousands of people continue to become newly infected with the virus every day. And experts worry that if Americans let their guards down — especially now with variants circulating — there could be another surge coming.

“The only thing that I’m concerned about now, is that we do have this UK variant … and it seems to be accelerating in the United States,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School for Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN on Monday.

CDC data shows more than 1,100 cases of the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant — first detected in the UK — have been reported in the US. The agency has previously warned the strain will see rapid growth in early 2021 and will likely become the predominant variant by March.

“I think we should be assuming that the next wave of case growth, to the extent that we have it, is going to be with B.1.1.7, and that’s something that I think everybody has to be even more cautious about,” Andy Slavitt, White House COVID-19 senior adviser, said on MSNBC on Monday. “It’s nice to see the numbers of cases drop, but it could be misleading.”

Weather adds another challenge for vaccine plans

And while officials are working to get more Americans vaccinated, winter storms are now delaying the process in parts of the country.

In Texas, Dallas County officials announced they were closing the Fair Park vaccination site through Wednesday because of severe weather.

“We understand the urgency to administer second doses of the vaccine, but we must also balance people’s safety,” officials said in a news release. “As soon as we can safely open again, we will.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said mass vaccination events planned through Friday were canceled due to severe weather that “makes driving dangerous and threatens the health and safety of anyone exposed to the cold.”

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said that while the weather “is going to slow down our vaccinations,” he hopes the state will be able to make up for the delays next week.

The storms caused disruptions as states continue to grapple with other vaccine challenges, including short supply and distribution inequities.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said on Monday that while progress on vaccine hesitancy and equity among members of the Latino community was “encouraging,” the state was still seeing a “substantial disparity in vaccine administration between Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities.”

He added the state still needed more supply from the federal government to be able to meet the growing demand.

“When we get to that point when we can expand the supply and we have that supply, we need people to be comfortable taking the vaccine,” the governor said.

Most children are in red zones under CDC school reopening guidelines

While vaccines are catching up, many parts of the country continue to see high levels of COVID-19 transmission.

In fact, about 89% of children live in a county considered a red zone under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new school reopening guidelines, a CNN analysis of federal data shows.

Red, or “high transmission,” communities are defined by the CDC as counties where there were at least 100 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of at least 10% in the past seven days.

But even in communities where there is high transmission, the agency says its new guidelines provide strategies for schools to continue in-person learning.

“At all levels of community transmission, the strategy provides options for in-person instruction,” a CDC spokesperson told CNN in an email on Monday. “It is not the case that we are saying that schools that are currently open should close because they are in counties in the ‘red.’ Our recommendation is that schools in red areas can in fact provide in-person instruction, as long as they are strictly implementing mitigation and monitoring cases in the school community.”

The agency’s guidelines, released on Friday, focus on five key COVID-19 mitigation strategies: the universal and correct wearing of masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. It also offers different strategies based on how much transmission there is in the surrounding community.

Some experts have also said teacher vaccinations should be essential for a return to class. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently told CNN that while she advocates for teachers receiving their shots, “we don’t believe it’s a prerequisite for schools to reopen.”

As of Monday, two more states — Alaska and North Dakota — have started allowing all or some teachers and school staff to begin receiving their shots, bringing the total up to 28 states plus Washington, DC.

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